Every year, millions of children become ill or chronically debilitated as a result of living in an unhealthy environment. Strategies are in place for combating threats to children's health, but officials say they now need to be implemented on a global and national scale. The United Nations is encouraging countries around the world to use World Heath Day on 7 April as a chance to focus greater attention on the issue.
Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Over 5 million children aged 14 and under die every year from diseases related to the places where they live, learn, and play. Many, but not all, are from developing nations, where unsafe water, poor sanitation, air pollution, toxic chemicals, and disease-bearing insects can all lead to a range of ailments, including diarrhea, malaria, and acute respiratory infections.
The UN's health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), is using this year's World Health Day (7 April) to raise awareness about environmental risks that affect children. The slogan of this year's event, "Shape the Future of Life," aims to mobilize worldwide action on making the environment more safe for children -- whether by supplying insecticide-treated bed nets for children in Africa to reduce their risk of malaria, or by guaranteeing smoke-free areas for children to reduce their exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke.
Gregory Hartl is the WHO's communications advisor for sustainable development. Speaking to RFE/RL from Geneva, he described the motivating concerns behind this year's events: "[World Health Day] is used to give profile to a major public-health concern. And this year we are using World Health Day to bring attention to the fact that over 5 million children per year die from environmentally related causes. This is a little-known fact. Consequently we want to bring more attention to this fact around the world so more action can be taken to protect the lives of our children."
World Health Day will be marked around the world with symposia and political debates about the issue. On a more personal level, Hartl noted, many communities have arranged for children to describe to their parents, teachers and local officials how they see their environments.
"Of course within this event everything possible might take place. But we want to give children a prominent place -- you know, role playing, dances, songs, public events, which bring attention in the local communities to children and to what they, their parents and other adults can do to prevent environmental risks to children, and also to the fact that it is such a big problem," Hartl said.
Many countries are taking a individualized approach to World Health Day. In Macedonia, the Association of Doctors for the Environment are planning to hold an event called "Recognize the Enemy" in an elementary school in the city of Kumanovo. Tomica Ancevski, a medical doctor and president of the association, said the event will consist of four parts.
"The first part will have members of the Macedonian Association of Doctors for the Environment giving classes to children in the school. They plan to speak about health, how they can get diseases, how children can [avoid] diseases, etc.," Ancevski said.
A brainstorming session will then be organized to make children comment on their environment. Discussions about ways to support healthy environments will also take place.
Ancevski pointed out that poor sanitation and uncontrolled garbage disposal is "everywhere" in Macedonia, and marks the main problem for children's environment. Polluted rivers and air are also a threat.
In neighboring Albania, an exhibition will be held at Tirana's Academy of Arts with different works by children meant to inform teachers, parents, and politicians of how a child's daily environment can affect its health.
In Serbia, the public Railway Health Care Institute, consisting of 20 medical centers around the country, had planned to promote the railway as an ecological means of transportation. The plans have since been postponed until the beginning of May, due to the recent assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. But Djordje Cakic, a medical doctor now running the institute's public-relations department, said the events will try to raise awareness about the importance of clean air.
"[Serbia] is a country with a lot of [road] traffic, and we try to highlight the importance of traffic problems. In the last few years we see that a lot of children have respiratory diseases because of polluted air. Predominantly, its origin is from the traffic. And we think that railway is the best ecological means of transportation," Cakic said.
Most environment-related diseases and deaths can be prevented, said the WHO's Hartl. He said it is time for those responsible for children's health to put into practice the information now widely available about environmental safety.
"We really need to get people active in efforts to improve the environments in which children live, play, and learn -- at all levels of society, in the home, in the communities, by nongovernmental organizations, and of course then by governments and by international organizations. Everyone self-evidently has a stake in our children's future. Obviously there are also billions of children in the world who need looking after, so not any one organization can do this," Hartl said.
Everybody, Hartl insisted, can help tackle the environmental risks facing children face, even in the poorest settings. Buying a $5 stove for a cold and damp house, for example, could spare children the "big, big danger" of acute respiratory infections.